Critical Essays Applying Literary Terms to A Raisin In The Sun

Hansberry expresses many political and sociological views in Raisin, ideas which attack racism and prejudice; the audience is moved to either take action after having seen the drama or to change previously held bigoted beliefs.

The chief character in a work is called the protagonist, or sometimes, the hero. Walter is the protagonist in Raisin, for even though he does not appear to be a hero in the traditional sense of the word, he is the person around whom the drama revolves. The drama that unfolds in Raisin changes Walter dramatically, which prompts Mama to say about him at the end, “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain.”

The most important opponent of the protagonist is called the antagonist. In Raisin, one might erroneously assume that the antagonist is Karl Lindner, but that is merely a simplistic view. Walter’s real opponent is racism. Although Lindner is a representative of racist ideas, he is not the only force that is bearing down on Walter, crushing him with its weight.

The relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist is always one of conflict. Walter has conflict with Lindner because of what he represents, but Walter’s greatest conflict is with all the circumstances that stand between himself and the goal that he is obsessively trying to reach.

Uncertainty about the outcome of the story is known as suspense. If what happens in the drama goes against the expectations of the audience, it is known as surprise. The relationship between suspense and surprise heightens the magnetic power of the plot. In Raisin, we are surprised that Mama makes the spontaneous decision to entrust Walter with the remaining $6,500 of the insurance money. Suspense is created by our not knowing exactly what Walter will do with it.

The plot of a drama has unity of action if it is complete and orderly, and all of the parts of a plot are necessary to the development of the story. For perfect unity, all of the action must be significant action. All events that do not relate to the plot are omitted, which distinguishes literary narrative from merely telling a story of events from real life. All of the events in Raisin are necessary to the development of the plot or to the development of the characters. When Walter gives Travis two fifty-cent pieces and then has to return to and get carfare from his wife, we learn a lot about Walter’s character: his wanting to shield his son from discovering the family’s true economic situation, his feelings of economic inadequacy, and his denial of the ugliness of his family’s economic reality.

The German critic Gustav Freytag proposed an analysis of a play as: rising action, climax, and falling action.

The rising action of the play begins immediately with Walter’s obsession with the insurance check that the family is waiting for. He wakes up talking about it, he argues with his sister about it, and he suggests that his wife assist him in his plan to get Mama to sign the check over to him for his business venture. Aristotle used the term complication for rising action.
The climax of Raisin occurs with Bobo’s telling Walter that the money is gone and includes the family’s immediate response to this tragic news.
The falling action occurs as Walter is contemplating selling his pride for Lindner’s money and then deciding not to do so.

The traditional denouement, or unraveling of the plot, is the explanation of all the previous events of the drama. After Lindner leaves, we learn through Ruth’s dialogue that the family is about to make the move they have spoken of throughout the play — in spite of their sudden financial reversal; Beneatha tells Mama about the marriage proposal that she has received earlier in the day, and Walter and Beneatha’s previously troubled familial relationship appears to have been healed.

The denouement often includes a peripety, sometimes called a reversal, where the hero’s fortunes change either for better or worse. In Walter’s case, his fortunes change for the better — although initially it may not appear to be so. Walter loses the family’s money and is so distraught that he resorts to behavior that indicates self-hatred. Yet, when Walter decides on his own to regain his self-esteem in his dialogue with Lindner, not only does he maintain his own pride, but he also restores the dignity of the entire Younger family.

A portmanteau word is the fusion of two meanings packed into one word, as in Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky,” where “slithy” is the combination of “lithe” and “slimy.” In Raisin, Ruth refers to Travis’ “slubborn” ways, when she really means both “sloppy” and “stubborn.” Because of Ruth’s lack of formal education, she is not aware (but the audience is) that this is not a real word.

One requirement of good literature is that a character’s motivation — that is, the reasons for his actions — must be consistent with his moral nature and personality. The character may remain the same or the character may go through a complete metamorphosis, but no character should ever break off from the personality we expect of him and suddenly act in a manner that is not a part of his temperament. If the character is real and lifelike, the work is enhanced. Walter’s motivation to obtain the insurance money for his business scheme makes all of his subsequent actions believable, even if we feel that they are foolish. Walter’s motivation makes all of his dialogue believable and realistic.

A flat character is presented only in superficial form, without much individualized detail. A round character is more complex and, therefore, more difficult to describe. Mr. Lindner is a flat character, while Walter is a round character; there is no need for the character of Mr. Lindner to be as developed or as detailed as Walter’s.

According to Aristotle, the tragic hero will be more dramatically effective if he is an ordinary man, for then the effect of the tragedy will be enhanced as the audience identifies with his pain. Hamartia is the “tragic flaw,” or “tragic error in judgment,” which brings the hero to a momentary defeat. A form of hamartia is the term hubris, which means the pride or overconfidence that leads a man to overlook a divine warning or to break a moral law. Walter breaks a moral law when he uses his mother’s money for his “get-rich-quick” scheme without telling her; he is not aware of his immorality, for he naively believes that he will get rich and be able to pay her back. In Walter’s mind, he is “borrowing” the money that she has entrusted to him. However, Walter knows that his mother has been opposed to his idea of selling liquor because of her religious convictions.

Walter also overlooks a divine warning because both Ruth and Beneatha have, on separate occasions, expressed their feelings about Willy and Bobo. After Walter has been duped by Willy, Beneatha explains to Asagai that Walter has given away the family’s money to a man that ten-year-old “Travis would not have trusted with his most worn out marbles.” The tragic hero brings out pity in us because his misfortune is greater than we feel that he deserves, and he brings out fear in us because we recognize similar possibilities and consequences in our own fates.

A rhetorical question is asked in order to force the audience or reader to think; one does not expect an answer to a rhetorical question. Should a person exclaim in desperation — “What kind of fool do you think I am?” — this person surely does not expect an answer. In Raisin, Walter Lee asks why his wife should not wear pearls. “Who decides,” he explodes, “which women should wear pearls in this world?”

Irony is defined as a “twist of fate,” which means that the very last thing we would expect to happen, actually does happen. However, irony is not the same as a surprise ending. For example, a much-decorated wartime hero returns to his peaceful suburban village where a parade is planned in his honor. However, just as he is readying himself to join the reviewing stand of his parade, he slips in the shower on a bar of soap, falls, and is immediately and accidentally killed. The irony lies in the fact that he was not killed during wartime, which might have been expected. Rather, he was killed in a place where one would have least expected it, and the cause of his death has been trivialized as he dies in such a non-heroic manner. In Raisin, it is ironic that Walter believes that graft and corruption dominate all successful business activities — even before he is asked to do so, he prepares himself to pay the graft that he thinks will be requested of him; however, when he gives the money to his “friend” (who runs off with it), it is not the unscrupulous collector of graft who robs Walter of his dream; rather, it is his “friend.”

Dramatic irony refers to the audience’s knowledge of something that the character who is speaking does not know. When the character makes an innocent remark that refers to this “inside knowledge” that the audience has, the character’s words contain dramatic irony For example, as soon as the audience sees Bobo, we are aware that something has gone wrong in Walter’s plan. Walter’s fear forces him to deny the true purpose of Bobo’s visit. Everything Walter says when Bobo first makes his entrance is an example of dramatic irony. While Walter is asking Bobo to “tell him how things went in Springfield,” the audience immediately guesses the outcome. Even the other characters on stage become aware of the impending doom long before Walter does. Walter arouses our pity when he asks Bobo, “There ain’t nothin’ wrong, is there?” Of course, something is wrong. But even as Bobo tries to tell him, Walter interrupts in order to rephrase his question, “Man — didn’t nothin’ go wrong?” Walter’s dialogue continues in this vein until Bobo “hits him over the head” with the truth.